I can trace a lot of happiness in my youth to the joyous chords and catchy lyrics of “Teen-age. Mut-ant. Nin-ja. Tur-tles. Heroes-on-the-half-shell…TURTLE-POWER!” So yeah, the truth comes out: I was a Ninja Turtles nerd, as well as being several other types of nerd simultaneously. I remember the marketing blitzkrieg with figures, lunch pails and school supplies. I also remember the controversy that loomed over the first movie as every kid emulated their heroes by demonstrating their mad ninja skills (in good fun) on the playground. But like all controversies about pop culture’s negative impact on youth, be it TMNT, Power Rangers or Marilyn Manson, the fuss faded and everyone went back to enjoying their fads in peace for a time.
This is the point in the story where the Turtle Power flits out like a shorted circuit and despite occasional flare ups in the form of new TV shows and promotions, the TMNT would never enjoy the stratospheric heights of success it once did. Seemingly powered by 80s nostalgia, demand has always been high for a new Turtles movie, something darker in tone with the original live-action film as opposed to the cornball, kidified sequels. This is where Kevin Munroe, former video game designer, comes into play; his CG-Turtles are more in the spirit of the original comic and first movie as opposed to any of the cartoon series or spin-offs. Surprisingly, Munroe quite nearly succeeds in setting the tone. The film is far from perfect, but it’s decent enough for TMNT fans old and new to enjoy.
Sort of a loose sequel to the first two live-action movies, this film begins with the Turtles having gone their separate ways. The most glaring of the absences is Leonardo, who was sent to Central America by the Turtle’s sensei and father Splinter (a giant rat, remember?), to learn how to be a better leader. Back home, Donatello passes the time as a phone-in IT consultant, Michelangelo wears a big foam turtle head and entertains at kids’ parties and Raphael wears a giant suit of armour and fights crime as “the Nightwatcher”. The Turtles are reunited though when the machinations of evil billionaire Max Winters starts using the Foot Clan to bring together 13 fabled monsters (unfortunately not including Krang the Brain from Dimension X) for some sort of crazy scheme involving a porthole… to another dimension.
The story is the weakest part of the film and is, in fact, a secondary consideration for Munroe, who also wrote the script. The back story tells how Winters is an immortal warrior that tried to gain untold power by opening the aforementioned porthole, only to unleash those 13 monsters that have plagued humanity ever since. Well first, it’s never explained how these horrible monsters had managed to evade, capture and detect over 30 centuries, and secondly, the ninjas of the Foot clan seem to have a pretty easy time in rounding up these vicious beasts.
What works is the dynamic between the Turtles, especially the rivalry between Leonardo and Raphael, which is perfectly captured in an emotionally jaw-dropping fight sequence between the two brothers. With so much care and attention paid to the brotherly interplay, it’s easy to overlook any silliness and plotholes in the main story. Munroe further makes up for any shortcomings with a tantalizing promise of something big to come in a potential sequel, the kind of twist that makes you want to see the next episode first thing the next day.
As much as I love the original live action TMNT, up to and including the Turtle suits designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, I have to admit that it took CGI to really open up the world of the Turtles. There’s an entire sequence where Michelangelo skateboards down through the sewer tunnels from the surface to the Turtles’ hidden lair and such a shot would have been impossible to do live action. The same can be said with many of the fight sequences and action set pieces in the film as the true fluidity of the Turtles’ movements would have been impossible to capture in a rubber suit.
The film even worked so well, I was able to overlook the fact that April O’Neil’s voice was done by the exceptionally one-noted Sarah Michelle Gellar, and the way Patrick Stewart was hamming it up big-time as Winters. To the contrary, I thought that Chris Evans was the perfect fit for hockey-masked vigilante Casey Jones and the late, great Mako was an inspired choice for the voice of Splinter. The Turtles themselves are not voiced by any “name actors” but the actors hired do an excellent job of imbuing the foursome with their own individual personalities.
All these factors combined manage to make a movie that could have easily floundered into one that successfully relaunches a franchise in a way that’ll resonate with the kids and the kids in all of us. Turtle Power has definitely returned and while the stuffed-shirt older critics will hate it, the younger generation will surely line-up for it. A kid’s movie? Try telling that to the teens and young adults who packed the theatre at the same 10 pm showing I was at. Turtle power, indeed.